Irish Examiner archives: 1940's were a decade of war and want — and yet change

While historians dissect the major events in the life of the nation, newspapers provide a living history — tracking and recording not just the headline news or the grand themes but also the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Irish Examiner archives: 1940's were a decade of war and want — and yet change

The Irish Examiner has been doing this since 1841 and last November, for the first time, a huge swathe of that material became available in digital form.

Stage one of the archive project launched last November provides reproduction of the Irish Examiner from 1841 to 1939.

Today, we launch Stage two up to 1949 and the rollout of the rest of the archive at a decade per month will be completed by the end of September.

The digitisation of the Examiner archives is part of a national media project overseen by the Irish Newspaper Archives.

The online archives now cover the period from the newspaper’s birth to the end of the 1940s, a decade of war and want, yet of progress and change, too.

The worldwide conflict dominated the daily newspapers, including the Cork Examiner — as it then was — even though Ireland remained staunchly neutral.

The summer of 1940 was a disastrous time for the Allies in their fight against Hitler. The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk left much of Europe in German hands. Hitler now within striking distance of Britain and one of the things being considered by the German military an invasion of Ireland, possibly with the help of the IRA who saw the war as an opportunity to end partition.

The Irish Army on manoeuvres near Ballincollig, Co Cork, in July 1940. A digitised version of the ‘Irish Examiner’ archives has been opened up to the public, and

includes coverage of ‘The Emergency’, as the Second World War was known.

There was also a very real prospect of Ireland being invaded by Allied forces to prevent this, although Éamon de Valera had assured the British that Ireland’s neutrality would be benevolent.

We did not escape the war entirely. Several places in Ireland were bombed by the German Luftwaffe and three women — two of them sisters — were killed in Campile, Co Wexford, when a creamery was destroyed by bombers.

In April 1941, bombing raids on Belfast killed more than 700 civilians, prompting the Irish Government to send ambulances and fire-brigades across the Border. The most dangerous animals in Belfast Zoo were shot in case they escaped while, in June, German planes dropped bombs on Dublin, killing 34 people.

Yet ordinary life went on, even if changing circumstances had to be accommodated. On March 24, 1940, the Examiner reported the return of the bicycle as an everyday mode of transport.

“Cork’s big push has begun,” wrote the Examiner reporter. “The push bike — whose doom was said to have been sealed by the advent of the motor care — is coming back to its own with an unprecedented rush.”

You may be forgiven for thinking that this mirrors the most recent rebirth of the bike, amid health and environmental concerns.

Not a bit of it, at least according to the cyclist, who explained: “Petrol stocks have gone down, bus fares are going up, spring is here, so it’s wheel and saddle for me.”

The plain people of Ireland had to endure other privations as well. White flour was now a memory and it even became harder to keep the home fires burning, with the newspaper reporting that, owing to falling imports, coal would only be available to industry.

A harvest scene at Wilton, Cork, from July 1947. The ’Irish Examiner’ archives reveal

that the supposedly stuffy decade was one of social change.

The Government also demanded: “Owners of commercial vehicles are warned that if they carry passengers to race meetings or other sports fixtures they will get no further supplies of petrol or tyres.”

Even clothes were restricted, with the Government insisting on controlling the number of pockets in a man’s jacket and the style of women’s underwear.

Censorship of newspapers was all-embracing during the war. When, in 1942, the horror of the Holocaust and Nazi death camps was revealed, the Examiner was forbidden to print a single account of Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jews.

Other forms of censorship were also evident, with frequent bans on so-called ‘indecent’ books.

In the Senate, John Keane read from the banned book, The Tailor and Ansty, declaring that it was “not intended to corrupt or deprave or excite sexual passion, or unnatural vice”.

Most of his fellow senators disagreed.

Despite the war — or the ‘Emergency’ as it was known — some of the finer things were still on offer in the shops.

In a front page Examiner advert, Dowdens of Patrick Street in Cork was delighted to offer customers ‘satin nightgowns from 12/6, along with ‘directoire knickers of exceptional value’.

When the war ended, conditions were still difficult for most Irish people. Only one in four had running water and, while prices rose, wages didn’t.

There were some triumphant moments though, like Ireland’s first grand slam victory in rugby and the day our soccer team became the first foreign side to inflict a home defeat on England

Other momentous events included the opening of the world’s first duty-free airport at Shannon and the declaration of Ireland as a republic.

To find out more, visit

READ NEXT: Image collection offers glimpse into Cork of bygone times.

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